Brazil’s Take on Iran and NPT

The Brazilian-Turkish agreement with Iran on enriched uranium was part of Brazil’s effort to project the power to "solve conflict through negotiation," says Brazilian international affairs expert Antonio Ramalho.

May 19, 2010

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Nonproliferation, Arms Control, and Disarmament

The successful Brazilian-Turkish effort to get Iran to agree to a deal to send about half of its low-enriched uranium abroad was quickly upstaged by the announcement of a draft resolution for Iran sanctions that had Russia and China’s blessing. Brazil wanted to project "political capacity" in the deal it helped craft, says Brazilian international relations expert Antonio Ramalho, who adds that "the very fact that the Iranians have agreed to sign an agreement has already diminished Iran’s maneuverability." Ramalho says that Brazil, a late (1998) signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, debated about whether to sign the NPT but did so to gain access to peaceful nuclear technology.

Why did Brazil take such an active role in working out this nuclear agreement with Iran?

There was one important motivation, which is to project Brazil’s political capacity in the world. The Brazilian government has a perception that there have been rearrangements in the international system politically, diplomatically, and economically. Brazil perceives that this allows some room for maneuvering to new powers such as China, India, South Africa, and Brazil. Brazil believes it can provide the international community with diplomatic expertise on the one hand, and help solve conflict through negotiations.

Brazil believes it can play an important role, as a representative of emerging countries, in delivering some solutions that do not depend on the use of force or on the threat of the use of force.

I don’t necessarily say that I accept this as "truth," but the Brazilian government has this conviction. Brazil has another conviction, which is that international security cannot be provided without the promotion of an international order that is more equitable than exists today.

What was it in the case of Iran that led the Brazilian government to be so active?

It was, again, the perception of a diplomatic void on the one hand, and the perception of mounting tension over the imposition of new Security Council sanctions. The Brazilian government believes that new and tougher sanctions on Iran would not work. It would only contribute to strengthening Iran’s position in the region and strengthening the hardliners within Iranian society and within the Iranian government. They would be able to say that the economic problems they face were due to the sanctions imposed by the international community.

If we impose further sanctions, that will only increase the secrecy in Iran and increase the military orientation of this program.

Brazil is now a member of the Security Council, and it’s been involved in these discussions in New York on sanctions. Will the agreement worked out with Turkey and Iran result in tensions between Brazil and the United States?

The Brazilian government believes that new and tougher sanctions on Iran would not work. It would only contribute to strengthening Iran’s position in the region and strengthening the hardliners within Iranian society and within the Iranian government.

I don’t think so. Turkey is also a member of the Security Council. The perception of the Brazilian government was that there was no longer a possibility of a peaceful way out of this situation involving just the permanent Security Council members and Iran. Brazil believed it was necessary to find an alternative and a creative solution, to take the same agreement that Western countries had discussed with Iran last October, but to change the actors. There is more trust between the Iranian government with both the Turkish and the Brazilian governments, and so the agreement is transformed even though the substance of the agreement has not been changed substantially.

As you know, Brazil would like a permanent seat in the Security Council. There is a common refrain from experts abroad to ask what Brazil has to offer the international community. Brazil does not have nuclear weapons; it does not have a huge armed force. The answer is: What Brazil has to offer is political expertise. Because if you remember well, [Carl von] Clausewitz and all the great strategic thinkers are convinced that it’s better to win a battle without having to fight it. So what Brazil offers is not the possibility of using military power or imposing its will, but the possibility of engaging the opponents and turning the Security Council into a more political organization than it is nowadays.

What is Brazil’s attitude toward the NPT, which is now having a review conference at the UN? At one time in Brazil’s history when the military ran the government, there were apparently secret efforts to develop some kind of nuclear weapon capacity.

What exists is the diplomatic and, again, politically principled position that the NPT is a discretionary treaty. It establishes a difference between countries that are supposedly responsible and can have this nuclear weapons technology, vis-à-vis those who are not considered responsible and would endanger international security if they had the nuclear capacity. Brazil signed the Treaty of Tlatelolco in 1994, which established a nuclear-free zone in Latin America and the Caribbean. We have a unique relationship with Argentina, in fact, which permits experts from Argentina to enter into all nuclear installations in Brazil. Brazil has inserted into its own constitution that its nuclear program is only for peaceful purposes. Last but not least, there is a deep involvement of civilians in the military program that is conducted within the Brazilian Navy. But, as far as I know, Brazil is the sole country in the world that allows the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to make inspections within its own military facilities.

Was Brazil a latecomer to the NPT treaty?

In 1998, when Brazil signed the NPT treaty, there were arguments for and against. The argument against adhering to the NPT was that Brazil already made its program transparent, but at the same point, it had this principled position which is the one followed by India. Although we know that India had a military program, the Indian government has never agreed to adhere to the NPT [because] it is a discriminatory treaty. In 1998, the majority of the military, as well as many diplomats and experts, [thought] that Brazil should not sign the NPT, based on this argument. It is the tradition of Brazil to fight for a more fair international order that is ruled by institutions and norms [and] that considers states to be equally responsible from the point of view of international law. The argument was that we should not subscribe to a treaty that is discriminatory. This did not mean that Brazil aimed at developing nuclear artifacts or whatever.

There are economic and commercial applications of the nuclear technology, which explains Brazil’s refusal to sign the additional protocols.

On the other side of the argument from those who were for signing the NPT was that doing so would lead to a greater access to peaceful nuclear technology. And also that Brazil, Israel, India, and Pakistan were the sole countries that had not signed the NPT. So the concern about being isolated persuaded many of the Brazilian diplomats. Brazil has signed the treaty; it has adhered to the regime. It refuses the "additional protocols."

The additional protocols allows IAEA inspectors to go everywhere they want?

Yes, particularly in terms of having access to technologies that have commercial purposes. The NPT just concerns the amount of uranium that enters and leaves the facilities, while the additional protocols would permit technicians to have access to some technologies that Brazil has developed itself, because it did not have access to foreign technology. So there are economic and commercial applications of the nuclear technology, which explains Brazil’s refusal to sign the additional protocols.

Crisis Guide: IranYou know these things are interconnected, to a certain extent. Brazil’s position on its nuclear program is very clear. It is what it is in the Brazilian constitution: We will not use it to develop bombs or any nuclear artifacts. That does not mean that we cannot develop a reactor to be placed into a submarine, which is a military application--but not a military application of nuclear power, but nuclear energy, and that make a huge difference. Close to 95 percent of our foreign trade goes through the sea, and 80 percent of the oil Brazil produces is on the sea. The idea is to have nuclear submarines which are more effective than conventional submarines.

What has been the reaction in Brazil, to the agreement worked out in Iran? There was some criticism of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva welcoming Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last year, soon after the disputed elections in Iran. Was this regarded as a great achievement for Brazil or is Lula being criticized for it?

Both. I agree with those who are in favor of the agreement, but who are skeptical because they say it’s too soon to evaluate the results. It is still too soon to evaluate whether this is going to be a breakthrough for the international community. But from the point of view of Brazil’s image abroad, it has been positive already. Because even if it doesn’t work, even if all this skepticism about it is correct, Brazil will have taken responsibility for trying to break a dangerous deadlock. If it were not for new initiatives to engage Iran, we would probably go for tougher sanctions, but that would lead to a tougher response from the Iranian government, and this could eventually lead to conflict. So even if it doesn’t work, the very fact that the Iranians have agreed to sign an agreement has already diminished Iran’s maneuverability, because one month from now if it does not work, Ahmadinejad would be seen as only manipulating Lula and Prime Minister [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan of Turkey. Iran would have lost a positive opinion of countries that favor engagement. And it would be even more isolated than it is now. So in a sense, this has already changed the process.

And what do the critics say?

The critics say that Brazil is too small, that this is an act of vanity based on the idea that he [Lula] can do more than he can. And again, why? Because those people tend to think if you don’t have military muscles or economic capacity to press Iran, you will not be able to move the Iranians. But they do not consider that for the Iranians themselves, they want not to be isolated. Although they are right that Brazil does not have a military or economic capacity to sanction and to impose pressure on Iran, Brazil has this political capacity to change the process in such a way to create an opportunity for the Iranians to reorient their place in their region, and to reorient their relations with the international community in a way that would be positive for the Iranians.